Boxing: Khan on course to become USA's prime time golden boy
The Bolton fighter's title defence against Paul McCloskey in Manchester on Saturday is the latest step towards a series of lucrative 'megafights' Stateside
Thursday 14 April 2011
Amir Khan's story, from Olympic podium to a resting place on the bloody canvas and, through miraculous resurrection at a gym of boxing dreamers in Los Angeles, back to seemingly endless nights of glory, has been chronicled.
It is not quite a fairy-tale but it is not too far off and it starts at the Olympics in Athens when Khan was just 17 and lost in the lightweight final to the Cuban idol Mario Kindelan. The following year ITV arranged a rematch live on a Saturday night in Bolton, Khan's home town, and he won. The last round that night was one of the most remarkable and emotional I have witnessed in more than 30 years of ringside appearances; a "star is born" moment of joyous cliches as grown men wept and Kindelan was left sick as a parrot.
Khan turned professional, he kept winning, the audience loved him, but in 2008 in 60 savage seconds he was knocked senseless by an unknown and now anonymous Colombian called Breidis Prescott. Khan sacked his trainer, put on his dark glasses, swallowed his pride and flew to Los Angeles and a long, long shot at redemption inside Freddie Roach's Wild Card gym. It worked and with the slick guidance of Frank Warren, whose expertise at salvaging lost careers is magical, Khan somehow pulled off the seemingly impossible and 10 months after the loss he was world champion.
This Saturday the story continues at the MEN Arena, Manchester, scene of the Prescott mauling, when Khan defends his World Boxing Association light-welterweight title against Paul McCloskey, an unbeaten Irishman. A live gate of 17,000 or more is expected, which is comforting after a week of total chaos surrounding the fight's screening rights. It will not be on Sky, as originally planned, and will now be shown on Primetime, a serious outfit of faded ambition which once threatened to be a real contender in the boxing business.
Last year Khan turned his back on Warren's magic wand and joined forces with Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy promotions, claiming he wanted to be a boxing superstar and an attraction in the USA. It looked like a safe enough move by Khan, who followed a familiar path already carved through boxing's murkier highways by sole-traders Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and a decade ago Naseem Hamed. However, it is never that easy and most breakaways by fighters turn into little more than smash-and-grab raids courtesy of a TV company's largesse.
Khan's path needed to be different because he was not yet a major star and last May, in New York, he met the wonderfully entertaining Paulie Malignaggi, whose gloves are handily disguised as pillows; Khan won easily. The plan had been for Khan to fight brilliant Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez, not Malignaggi, in a fight that would have raised his profile. The wait was sensible. After Malignaggi there was talk of a unification fight and it was just talk; part of the problem was that the other champions at Khan's weight were skilled but dull. The boxers in question, Tim Bradley and Devon Alexander, have since fought each other, the crowds stayed away, the fight was a stinker and Bradley won. De La Hoya knew that he still had to do some building with Khan and he needed a fight that would fill the gap and a fight like that often involves risk.
Khan eventually fought Marcos Maidana in December in a fight that most people consider the best of 2010. Maidana entered the ring having knocked out 26 of his 27 victims and Khan's desire to prove his resilience came close to costing him the fight. He won in the end, but checked himself into hospital for a CT scan when the thriller was over. The fight changed it all for Khan – it made him a real star, a player.
"It was Amir's dream to be in big fights in America and we can make that dream come true," said Richard Schaefer, the chief executive of Golden Boy. "He is a promoter's dream and there are megafights for him in the future. The fans saw the Maidana fight and they want more of him. Amir will be part of boxing's future."
It needs to be pointed out that fewer than 5,000 fans paid to watch Khan beat Maidana at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas; Schaefer, however, has the endorsements of the men in suits at the all-important and powerful HBO ringing in his ears. Khan is more than just a side attraction in a sport dominated by just a few; he is now a TV fighter in America on HBO, which will show Saturday's fight on delayed basis.
It is, perhaps, too easy to dismiss Saturday's fight as unimportant because Sky and Khan's promoters, a loose co-op of family, friends, Ricky Hatton's company and long-distance alliances with Schaefer's people in Los Angeles, failed to agree terms. It is also possible that a fixer such as Warren or Bob Arum could have salvaged the carnage with a compromise or two or three. Sadly, and possibly predictably, there was to be no deal, Sky backed away, Golden Boy fell silent and now Primetime will provide the all-important feed for HBO to continue to show one of their future stars. The fight, by the way, could accidentally turn into a classic.
The sensible thinking is that Khan will be too good but McCloskey, who has knocked out his past five opponents, all of whom were decent fighters, is perfectly capable of upsetting all the plans. 9000 Irish fans believe they will not be making the journey to ringside in vain; however, McCloskey's chances will diminish if he allows his heart, inspired by his supporters, to rule his head.
"We can make Amir a global superstar," claimed De La Hoya. "He's the perfect package right now. He has been in great fights, he's good-looking, he speaks well and people like him." De La Hoya, who speaks English and Spanish, remains boxing's crossover champion. His fight with Floyd Mayweather was the highest-grossing fight in history, but it was his work away from the ring, at a time of Mike Tyson's excesses, that set the gold standard for marketing possibilities.
"Amir can be the best fighter to come out of Britain, the best out of Europe and one of the best in the whole world. This is a great time because there are so many fights available to him," added De La Hoya.
This Saturday is about Khan's homecoming, which is why the place will be heaving. The next fight will be part of Golden Boy's global plan and will take place in Las Vegas, probably on 23 July and the opponent is expected to be Bradley. It will be the last fight of its kind in Khan's career as he begins the drift into megafights, as Schaefer calls them, which involve boxers from different weight classes or veterans returning. The "megafight" alchemy has worked again and again and Khan's dance card for the next 18 months includes legends Marquez, Shane Mosley, Floyd Mayweather and Erik Morales.
There is no doubt that Khan is a win or two from taking part in the circus of rich, rich fights that have come to dominate boxing in the last decade; fights where baubles from distant sanctioning organisations are not necessary. They could also be the types of fights where distant squabbles with television companies are nicely forgotten in pursuit of the dollar glory that will surely accompany the rest of Khan's career.
"When Amir came to me he was a scared kid," said Roach, the guru of the Los Angeles gym where Khan went to save his career. "Now, he's one of the world's best fighters."
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